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article imageReview: False murder confessions in and out of the soaps Special

By Alexander Baron     Dec 28, 2013 in Entertainment
In "EastEnders", the odious Janine is about to get her just deserts having confessed to a murder, even though another woman has already confessed to the same crime.
Not only that, the once sweet little Alice has pleaded guilty and been remanded for sentencing. Admittedly this is a complicated matter, but in spite of some of the outrageous plots of this and other soap operas, similar scenarios happen in the real world. How does this sort of thing come about? Let's deal with EastEnders first.
Briefly, the odious Janine married the equally odious Michael, and after the marriage broke down, Michael decided to murder her by tricking Alice into administering her a fatal overdose. Alice realised she'd been duped, told Janine, there was a confrontation in which he tried to strangle her instead, and Alice stabbed him. Then, as she went to open the front door to the police, Janine picked up the knife - holding it in a cloth - and administered the fatal blow.
At the police station, Alice told the truth as she saw it, but after Janine gave the police an entirely different story and the post mortem revealed two stab wounds, Alice was charged with murder.
Confused, she decided eventually to plead guilty to murder, but maybe Janine isn't quite the psychopath she is made out to be because she confessed to a family member, who naturally taped her confession, and tried to shake her down for a quarter of a million.
After trying to murder him too - running him down with a car - and failing, the proverbial hit the fan as someone else informed the police of her taped confession, which is where we are now with Janine carted off in handcuffs. And Alice? Alas, she is still behind bars because the law is not that simple.
If that sounds too convoluted to be true, real life scenarios are often even more bizarre. In the US, a teenager named Terrell Johnson (apparently one of several people with that name currently in the news) confessed to participating in the murder of Memphis contractor J.P. Shelley during a robbery. Johnson was arrested in October, but was released before Christmas. Details are scant, but his confession does not appear to have been coerced, so presumably there was evidence that put him elsewhere at the material time.
Much has been made of Johnson's age, but it is not simply the young who confess falsely to heinous crimes. The case of the Norfolk 4 is extraordinary, especially as these men were considered of sufficient calibre to be inducted into the US Navy, but they confessed to a murder in double quick time and ended up spending more than a decade behind bars.
The case of the so-called Central Park jogger is equally alarming. Although the victim of this shocking assault not only survived but made an amazing recovery, this could easily have been a murder case.
In April 1989, this young woman was attacked in Central Park, viciously assaulted, raped, and left for dead. Five youths were indicted, four of them confessing on tape. Although there was no DNA evidence against them - which would nowadays be considered surprising - their confessions were deemed sufficient to convict.
The victim - who was later identified publicly - could give no meaningful evidence about her terrible ordeal.
Because four of the suspects were black, the usual suspects began making the usual noises about racism from early on, but if you have time, check out some of the videos from the case on YouTube and ask yourself, would you have convicted them? The real perpetrator was identified only after he confessed in prison.
There are of course far more outrageous cases within living memory and throughout history.
Recently, the mathematician Alan Turing received a posthumous pardon for a crime that is not considered a crime at all today - in England at any rate - but it can be argued there are far more deserving cases, like those of the Pendle Witches, and indeed many others convicted of witchcraft and murder by witchcraft throughout history. America had its Salem Witch Trials, but there have been many others in other countries. Many of the accused in cases across the board confessed to fantastic or even impossible crimes without either torture or the threat of torture.
A lot more could be written on this subject, but it will suffice to say that with perjury by prosecution witnesses - including police officers - being the norm, some people might wonder if legal proceedings prove anything. We might mention here en passant the case of Michael Stone, who was convicted of an heinous double murder purely because the imbeciles who run the UK's criminal justice system elected to believe he had shouted a confession through a prison wall to the heroin addict in the next cell. They have since scuppered all attempts to match unexplained DNA at the crime scene to the real killer and have even "lost" a vital piece of evidence.
Talking about DNA evidence, surely that is foolproof? Only if it is sought, found and presented, and then again only if it has not been planted.
Back to the soaps, this time Emmerdale, in recent years, two men have been murdered and buried on the land owned by the local lord of the manor, and in both cases incriminating physical evidence has been planted at the crime scene. In the first instance by the son of the victim, who was covering up for his mother who murdered his father. In the second case by serial killer Cameron Murray who suffered the bizarre fate of being electrocuted and drowning in the basement of a flooded pub. Again though, that's only fiction, or rather ratings-chasing fantasy. Right?
How about the case of Adam Scott who was charged with rape on the basis of DNA evidence alone? Fortunately he had an unshakeable alibi. He was in prison 300 miles away at the time! This though was the case of an honest error, but what happens when the police or others plant evidence?
More than a decade after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, incriminating new forensic evidence was "found" on an exhibit from the original trial, and the two men tried for the crime - two of the original suspects - were duly convicted. Yet no one sought to raise the suggestion that maybe this evidence had been planted. That could be because they were guilty, but considering the manufactured hysteria that surrounded this case, the enormous sums of money spent on it, and the abolition of double jeopardy - a very sinister development - that brought it about, one might ask rightly if some individual, or perhaps more than one, was not prepared to go the extra mile in order to justify all this.
Back in Emmerdale village there is another miscarriage of justice brewing as a half-witted part-time poacher is about to be framed for burning down the local not-so-stately home. The case against him looks compelling, and like Alice in EastEnders, he believes he is responsible. Alice was unable to explain the second knife wound, and Sam will find it difficult to explain away the accelerant that the real arsonist - Declan - used. To make matters worse, Sam has a track record for arson, although apparently he does not have a conviction for it. Alas dear reader, it is not you he has to convince, and the doctored CCTV evidence may elicit a guilty plea from a man who also has a motive, a grudge at being summarily dismissed due to Declan's impending bankruptcy.
Again, if all the above sounds implausible, bear in mind there are numerous appellate court judgments that say otherwise. And just remember, miscarriages of justice are not things that only ever happen to other people.
More about Eastenders, Chillenden Murders, pendle witches, Dna evidence
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